The inventor of the telephone

As an experiment I recently asked half a dozen German adults (who happened to be in the same room with me) who invented the telephone. One didn’t know, but the others said it was Alexander Graham Bell — thus confirming my suspicion that the German school system isn’t what it used to be.

In former times (until 1933, to be exact), every German schoolchild knew that the telephone was invented not by some foreigner, but by a German physics teacher named Philipp Reis (1834–1874), who was born and raised in Gelnhausen.

French schoolchildren, on the other hand, knew perfectly well that Charles Bourseul (1829-1912) was the inventor of the telephone.

Italian schoolchildren had trouble deciding between Antonio Meucci (1808–1889), who called his invention a “telegrafo parlante” or “talking telegraph”, and Innocenzo Manzetti (1826–1877), who also invented a bicycle and a clockwork automaton that could play twelve different arias on the flute, then stand up and bow.

When the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933 they expunged the name of Philipp Reis from the schoolbooks, not because they had any doubt that he was the inventor of the telephone, but because they thought he was Jewish. (Which he probably wasn’t, but never mind.)

Plaque on the birth house of Philipp Reis in Gelnhausen

Birth house of Philipp Reis in Gelnhausen

This half-timbered house, the one with the blue timbers and red window frames, is identified by a metal plaque as the birth house of “Philipp Reis, inventor of the telephone, 1834-1874”. The house is located at the beginning of the street called Langgasse (“Long Lane”) in the Old Town of Gelnhausen.

Reis went to primary school in Gelnhausen, but was sent to Friedrichsdorf and later to Frankfurt am Main for his further education.

He spent most of his adult life teaching physics and other natural sciences at a school in Friedrichsdorf, where there is now a small museum about his life and work.

Philipp Reis really did invent a device which he called a Telefon in German, but he never quite got it to work reliably. It particularly refused to work on those occasions when he set it up in courtrooms to defend his application for a patent on the invention. In court it only squawked, evidently, and the judges were not impressed.

My photos in this post are from 2010. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: my post on Philipp Reis inventing the telephone in Friedrichsdorf.

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